Lost in the daily reports on the use of state vehicles by elected officials and employees in the early days of August was some good news about Arkansas's long-plagued juvenile justice system. For decades, the norm of indifference to the rehabilitation of youthful offenders has been regularly interrupted by reports of cruel abuse inside the walls of dank facilities. The outsourcing of these facilities to private companies makes the system exceptionally expensive compared to other states with little to show for the investment in bettering the lives of troubled youth.
But, on Aug. 4, Governor Beebe and Division of Youth Services Director Ron Angel celebrated steps towards creating a genuinely rehabilitation-focused system. Most interesting was that Beebe and Angel shared the podium with a national advocate for juvenile justice reform who, just two years ago, co-authored a report scathingly critical of the Arkansas system.
In that 2008 study, Pat Arthur of the National Center for Youth Law and co-author Tim Roche overviewed the archaic system and chronicled a laundry list of its flaws. But, that report also included a roadmap for reform. Arthur and Roche made the clear case that Arkansas needed to move away from secure facilities for non-violent offenders towards community-based services that have been shown in similar states to have success in rehabilitating youthful offenders and are now considered "best practices" for non-violent juvenile offenders. Such programs allow youth to remain in their home communities, continuing their educational progress, and focus on creating change within the youth's home through alteration of the behavior of both parents and children across months of treatment. Community-based programs provide a system of care to these youth so that they can return to freedom with tools to deal with the challenges they will inevitably face and to escape criminality.
At the press conference, Arthur noted the remarkable turnaround in the Arkansas system under the leadership of Angel (DYS's ninth director in a dozen years), saying, "Clearly from your governor and judges all the way out to your local community providers, you have shown tremendous support for reform in Arkansas."
Even if Angel and others at DYS who seem fully committed to a reform model are able to build their vision and eliminate the bevy of problems that remain in the fragile system, true juvenile justice reform in Arkansas must also include a return to the norm of erasing records of youth who have paid for their mistakes. At present, Arkansas's law related to the expungement of criminal records is quite limited, making it difficult for youth offenders to erase their criminal past without a pardon from the governor. A previous statute — Act 378 of 1975 — made expungement routine for most youthful offenders after the completion of probation.
During my recent legislative campaign, I visited with a number of men in their early 20s who noted the costs of telling prospective employers about "something stupid" they had done in their past despite a clean record since. While employers' decisions not to hire those seen as risks are logical ones, the result is hopelessness and an enhanced likelihood that these young people will see a return to crime as their only escape.
Beebe has convened a task force to review the state's corrections system with an eye to enhancing rehabilitation and reducing cost. Let us hope that their important work also includes a recommendation to our legislators to bring Act 378 back to life. That is a reform that will return hope to so many young men and women and to the communities that are relying upon them.
Jay Barth is a professor of politics at Hendrix College.